is This the End of the Big Classical Music Box Set?

In the past couple of decades, classical music listeners have become accustomed to seeing a number of Big Classical Box Sets (or BCBSs) released in the autumn. These sets feature many, most, or all recording- by [composer_name] or [conductor_name] or [artist_name] or [ensemble_name], and are generally sold at prices that make classical music collectors pull out their credit cards quickly.

It’s not easy to date the first BCBS, because, over time, there have been box sets whose size creeped up into Big territory. A complete Wagner Ring cycle was a big box set, or even a complete Beethoven piano sonatas, or Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas, and these were initial big in price. What changed, and led to BCBS status, was when these sets went beyond just collections of works by a single composer.

The first real BCBS didn’t come in a single box: it was the 180-CD Complete Mozart Edition from Philips. Released in 1990-91, in 45 volumes, it was more of a serial edition than a big box set, and the price for the entire set was around $1,000.

Around 2000, with the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, more affordable BCBSs were released. These were much cheaper than the Philips set, and I recall the cost of the various editions from different labels being around $200 – $300. (The Dutch label Brilliant Classics’ Bach Edition sold in the UK for £225.) While the Philips Mozart set was very expensive, the new, cheaper Bach sets allowed collectors to buy 150 or more CDs at around a dollar/euro/pound each.

In 2005, however, everything changed. While Brilliant Classic’s Bach was five years old, it hadn’t sold anywhere near as much as their new Mozart set would. The Brilliant Classics Complete Mozart set, with 170 CDs, sold in France for €99. By the time it was released in the US in 2006, where it listed at $150, it had already sold 300,000 copies. (It would eventually be sold as low as €39, but was more often available for €69. An updated edition from 2014 currently sells for €114 on Amazon France.) Brilliant Classics made a specialty of these big box sets, often with competent yet workmanlike recordings, and single-handedly succeeded in reducing the price of classical CDs.

Once the perceived value of classical CDs had dropped, all the labels had to compete. Hence the plethora of offerings every year. (You can read some of my articles about these box sets here.) The labels have trawled their back catalog, reviving conductors and artists that were formerly known only to a select few, bringing back many recordings that had long been out of print. But also bringing back a lot of dreck. In any artist’s career, there are always duds, and the market kept them hidden, so in many of these sets, you’d have, say, half the discs being Really Good, a third being Okay, and the rest being Meh.

Some artists have been the subject of repeated box sets. Herbert von Karajan, for example, seems to be covered by a new, larger box set every couple of years. Leonard Bernstein has done well, also, in part because of the massive number of recordings he made for Columbia Records (later Sony), then another massive number of recordings for Deutsch Grammophon, often re-recording the same works. And you can’t swing a violin bow without hitting a new edition of Glenn Gould’s recordings, which have been re-re-re-mastered and repackaged so many times it’s hard to keep track.

Even indie labels got into the game, with Hyperion Records assembling two large sets from long series they had released: the first was their Complete Schubert Songs set, on 40 CDs, and the second was their 99-CD set of Liszt’s Complete Piano Music.

Anniversaries are good reasons for box sets, hence the three recent sets from Universal (which encompasses DG, Philips, Decca, and others). 2016 saw a 200-CD set of Mozart’s works; in 2018, they released a 222-CD set of Bach’s works; and this year, it was time for a mere 123 CDs of Beethoven’s complete oeuvre. And this, I believe, is the inflection point. This is peak BCBS.

Most or all of this music is available on demand on all the major streaming services (if you can find it). While I have purchased the Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven sets, these are likely to be the last that I buy. I like the approach in these Universal sets, with lots of different performers, including different performers among a group of works (such as different pianists for the sonatas, different ensembles for the string quartets, etc.), and even different styles of performance (some original performance practice, others in a more standard twentieth-century style). The only two sets that I would consider in the future would be a complete Schubert, if it contained multiple recordings of all his lieder, and a BCBS of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recordings, even if it only covered his recordings on DG and EMI. (There are lots of others.)

I used to buy a few box sets a year, in part to get recordings by composers or artists I like, but also because of the low price, generally around one dollar/euro/pound per disc. When the only music you could listen to was what was on your shelves, these sets meant that I always had a lot to choose from. But I have recently been selling a lot of them off used, because the music is mostly available to stream, and because they take up a lot of space. I have ripped some of them, but not all, so in many cases I can listen to them without pulling out the CDs. But I do enjoy that nostalgic experience of taking a CD out of its sleeve, admiring its artwork, deftly inserting it into my CD player – yes, I still have one of those – and listening to the pristine sound of vintage digital plastic.

After mining the depths of their catalogs, the record labels have probably overloaded so many classical collections that even the most avid listeners who are not obsessed with having Every Single Recording Ever By [artist_name] will soon have no more room.

It seems as though these past few years have seen the swan song of the classical recording industry, as they dump as much as they can to the last remaining collectors who still want CDs. I’m exaggerating a bit, but there comes a point where it just makes no more sense to buy CDs that you can really never listen to when you have millions of options available to stream, even in lossless format, if you want to pay for it. Classical recordings won’t die, but I think the BCBS has reached the end of the line. In years to come, these BCBSs will be relics of a time when an industry attempted to grasp the past for one last hurrah, but the times have changed.

For more on BCBSs, check out this episode of The Next Track podcast, where we discuss CD packaging, and discuss the concept of the BCBS.